It looked likely that high-ranking Sixers would avoid speaking on the record about Ben Simmons until the team’s upcoming media day next Monday.
Instead, head coach Doc Rivers joined Stephen A. Smith Wednesday for an interview on ESPN’s First Take. Rivers was rather candid, too, sharing his thoughts on Simmons’ widely reported desire to part with the Sixers organization.
Rivers confirmed Simmons did indeed tell Sixers leadership he wants to move on.
“Yeah. It was a good conversation,” Rivers said. “And he gave his reasons, which we obviously didn’t agree with. But I think in sports ... there’s been so many times that this has happened that haven’t been reported, and the guy comes back. Listen, we’re going to go through it. We’re going to always do what’s best for the team. But I can tell you up front, we want to get Ben back. And if we can, we’re going to try to do that. Ben has a long contract, so it’s in our hands and we want him back.”
As was the norm for him last season, Rivers defended Simmons as a versatile, winning player. Rivers also pushed back against how he thought reporters construed his response when he was asked following the Sixers’ Game 7, second-round loss to the Hawks whether Simmons could be the point guard on a championship-caliber team.
“I don’t know that question or the answer to that right now,” Rivers said at the time. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
In Rivers’ opinion, that comment wasn’t placed in the proper context.
“I want to correct that,” he said to Smith, “because I would love you guys to play what I said. And I’ve told you this before, Stephen A., I never said what was reported. The question was asked about Ben — it was the first question after we just lost a Game 7 — and my answer was: ‘I’m not answering any of that stuff right now. I don’t even know how to answer that.’ That had nothing to do about Ben. I was basically saying, ‘I’m not answering that crap, those questions.’
“What disappointed me — and I don’t do this ‘media’ thing very often, you never see me do that — it was being portrayed that I was out there saying I don’t think we can win with Ben. And I do (think we can win with Ben). I told Ben that the next day. What really disappointed me was the next day I went and said, ‘Guys, I knew exactly what I was talking about,’ and no one heard it.
“They just kept running their narratives. I’ve been in sports a long time and I’m not misrepresented very often but in that case, I was. But it is what it is. Ben knows, (Simmons’ agent Rich Paul) knows and I know.”
The question was the fifth of Rivers’ postgame media availability, not the first, but it is accurate (from our perspective, anyway) that he did not seem to be intending to convey a profound lack of faith in Simmons. He said, “I don’t know” about several topics minutes after a crushing loss, and he called himself “very bullish” on Simmons the next day.
And, after a series in which Simmons shot 33.3 percent from the foul line and sat out key fourth-quarter possessions, the apparent initial uncertainty from Rivers was understandable.
Rivers on Wednesday identified better free throw shooting as vital for Simmons.
“It’s about the free throws, and we absolutely have to improve on that,” he said. “We don’t even need him to be at 70 (percent). We hired a free throw coach, a shooting coach. We want to get him in the gym, we want to work him to get him better, because I believe that one thing frees him up. I go back and people talk about that Game 7 … I’m not sure what the actual stat is, but I want to say Trae Young was 5 for (23). Who did that? Ben Simmons did that. And so we forget a lot of the things that he does.
“But I don’t, because I’m a coach and I know the value that he has for this team. Yes, we’ve got to get him to be better at the free throw line, because if he does that, that frees up all kinds of other things for him. The one thing we did do last year is we gave him the ball. We put the ball in Ben Simmons’ hands and he led our team. He led it to (being) the best team in the East in the regular season, and one game away from the Eastern finals. We can win a title with Ben; I just believe that.”
Smith asked Rivers whether he had concern over how Simmons’ teammates feel about all the drama.
“You fix it with communication,” Rivers said. “And Stephen, we are in sports, man. Things have changed all over the league. And in every league, you’ve heard guys: ‘I want out, I don’t want to come back.’ They come back.
“We forget … the San Antonio Spurs traded Sean Elliott. You remember that? They traded him to Detroit. He failed the physical, didn’t want to come back. He came back and they won the championship that year. So these things can happen, and we’re hoping it happens here. Listen, if it doesn’t, it’s not going to be for us not trying to get it right. I can tell you that.”
Elliott's situation was unique — a trade sending him from Detroit to Houston was voided because of the small forward's kidney condition, and he later returned to the Spurs after a season away — but it’s true that reconciliation with Simmons is technically possible as long as he remains on the roster.
The current state of limbo is, quite obviously, not ideal.
“… Once we get him back in the fold, then we can get to work,” Rivers said. “If that doesn’t happen, I don’t have an expectation, because I don’t know where we would go. That’ll happen if it happens. But right now Ben is still part of this team, and I’m going to focus on that part of it.”